The Louis Jourdan Website - Letter from an Unknown Woman
Director: Max Ophüls
Writers: Howard Koch (screenplay), Stefan Zweig (novel)
Co-starring: Joan Fontaine
Filmed at Universal Studios September and October 1947. Released April 1948 by Rampart Productions (Bill Dozier & Joan Fontaine) through Universal Pictures
Louis Jourdan plays a talented but dissolute concert pianist on whom a neighbor girl has a crush that she carries into adulthood with growing passion.
His name above the title, this giant leap forward for Louis Jourdan in only his second US film was a landmark in his career, but at the same time, deep in that furrow it was so difficult to climb out of of playing someone who was primarily a decorative love object.
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN is a melodrama which has gotten under the skin of many who've treasured it for decades, not just for its evocative direction and enveloping mood, but the poignancy found in chasing rainbows. As it has grown in the respect and affection of cinema lovers, Louis Jourdan's own positive feelings for the film have strengthened over the years.
This tracing of unrequited love brings countless mysteries with it, and all the unanswered questions may be part of the story's appeal, beyond a sympathy with the heroine.
Even for those who have not found LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN to be one of their top-ten films, it grabs a hold of one, begging for changes that might bring the screenplay to match Max Ophuls' eloquent creation.
Perhaps less time spent on the young girl's crush to allow for more development of her adult obsession.
Better, rather than just a crush (which it never appears to be more than at the time), if her feelings could have been shown to be more substantial and deep. Even one line of narration could have accomplished this. Or, she might have overheard in the street by departing friends that the way the pianist was living was going to destroy his career …. And that “the love of a good woman” was what he needed.
That might have given her a mission which would have made her adult obsession more valid and directed.
A brief scene explaining why he never came back from Milan would have done much to contradict the ambiguity of the pianist's character after the evening he spent with the heroine. Showing that he was a real heel after all even though he had seemed genuinely enchanted with her, and that his lines expressing fascination were well worn.
The whole segment before going out to the opera was extraneous in development of the story, and the time could have been given over to a montage of scenes from the mind of the pianist of how his life and career fell apart in the decade after meeting the heroine.
(For that matter, that an upstanding man like her husband would have accepted a woman with an illegitimate child in 1890s Austria represents quite a stretch. Having a husband at all seemed unnecessary, and the implication is that she got over the pianist for a time dilutes her ardor.)
Better, a scene with her child that showed how much the pianist lived on through the boy's presence.
One doesn't like to dig holes in the film. It is a lovely piece, just needed more passion to match the photography.
As a side note, it's interesting to see how make-up artists envisioned Louis Jourdan looking around age 40 (assuming he was meant to be 25 when he moved into the apartment building). In his sixties he was still looking younger, and in his nineties, has still not mirrored the look of this make-up.
As the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, everything tightens exquisitely
Louis Jourdan perfectly delivers the jaded lines about having known the heroine from somewhere in a manner so worn, it is difficult to believe that they'd work with any woman but she - compared to their almost believability when he first spoke them to her.
His performance as the focal point of undeserving love is brought to a zenith in the couple's last scene together, he so casual, finding it normal to find a woman he approached at the opera having slipped away from her husband to come to him after midnight, while her entire life crumbles before our eyes in the shock of disappointment.
One problem - which must drive his fans crazy in these early American movies - is the way “Hollywood” was trying to change Louis Jourdan's diction, and “Americanize” it. (You can read how LIFE Magazine depicted it HERE.)
As such, most of the time he is speaking naturally with the melodious French accent, but in many scenes, puts on an artificial American (sometimes quasi-British) one which not only doesn't sound right, but goes against the Continental character he is playing.
Getting so analytical might destroy the romantic fabric of this film, but if it could have made more sense, it genuinely would have been the classic many see LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN to be.
Click the image below to watch the scenes where the pianist gets the maitre d' to make excuses to the woman he was going to meet that evening, and then sweeps the heroine off her feet.
Click the image below to see the pair a decade later after their one night together when he meets her at the opera, and reawakens her obsession for him, but when she goes to him only to be faced with the reality that he doesn't even remember her.
The film opens when the pianist receives a letter from an unknown woman.
In it, she explains that she'd loved him since she was 16. As an adult, they finally meet, and he appears to be deeply interested in her.
But as she'd even discovered when he lived upstairs, the man is one for whom such conquests come easily and frequently.
After only one night together he leaves for a concert tour, and never returns to her. She bears his child, and later marries, coming to terms with her situation, but when they meet at the opera a decade later, she is powerless against his tired lines.
But when she goes to his apartment, the truth about him finally dawns on her.
Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine did a half-hour version of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN for radio on the "Camel Screen Guild Players" series in 1948.